Penned by speechwriter William Safire, the “nattering nabobs of negativity” was the phrase used by former Vice President, Spiro Agnew, to refer to the “liberal” media. Agnew had reason to discourage press scrutiny: not only was he in the Nixon administration, but he would later be convicted of tax evasion and money laundering in connection to bribes he took as governor of Maryland.
Ironically, the “nattering nabobs of negativity” more appropriately describes Nixon’s vice president and his political progeny. Agnew’s brand of rhetoric was shrill and aggressive. He questioned the patriotism of any who opposed the Nixon administration’s Vietnam policy. He constantly and consistently defined GOP enemies as “communists” and “hippies” and saved his harshest words for those that opposed the war. In short, he was a pioneer of the rhetoric that the Republican Party and their conservative allies perfected in the 1990s through talk radio and the 1994 campaign, rhetoric that would later permeate all things conservative. Rhetoric that was bitter, fantastic, and divisive.
In some ways, the bitter tone was successful. It was aggressive and forced its opponents on the left to continually take a defensive posture while feeding the voracious appetite for controversy of the media. Republicans’ continual claim that its policies were America’s, and opposition un-American resonated with many who didn’t want to be seen or feel unpatriotic. The message was simple. Either you were with them and America, or you weren’t.
By the twenty-first century, the GOP and its president seemed to rely exclusively on this type of simplistic partisan rhetoric, which grew only shriller leading up to the invasion of Iraq and then its subsequent bungled occupation. Now, some three years after the invasion, with most reasonable Americans agreeing that the situation there is dire, with the most recent National Intelligence Estimate even claiming it worsens the threat of terrorism, the negativism from the President, the administration, and its supporters is reach a crescendo.
In effect, the President has created a vision of Iraq based on his premise of good versus evil, that it borders on fantasy. The New York Times noticed it in an editorialÂ (registration req’d)Â this week:
Since he can’t defend the real world created by his policies and his decisions, Mr. Bush is inventing a fantasy world in which to campaign on phony issues against fake enemies….
…In Mr. Bush’s world, there are only two kinds of Americans: those who are against terrorism, and those who somehow are all right with it. Some Americans want to win in Iraq and some don’t. There are Americans who support the troops and Americans who don’t support the troops. And at the root of it all is the hideously damaging fantasy that there is a gulf between Americans who love their country and those who question his leadership.
The only thing is, most Americans have serious doubts about the Iraqi War and its leadership. And this kind of “with us/against us” dichotomy doesn’t play well with people in opposition. Especially considering American voters discovered doubt through observation. Blogger Glenn Greenwald :
More important still, Americans didn’t change their views because the media suddenly became adversarial or effective in its watchdog function (it didn’t), nor because Democrats found a will or a way to provide meaningful opposition (they haven’t), nor because the Bush administration’s propaganda is now less ruthless or deceitful (it isn’t). They changed their minds largely on their own, by simply looking at what is going on around them and using their critical faculties to compare what they see to the claims made by the Bush movement, and they have noticed the gaping disparities. And they are angry about it. Very angry.
The various GOP candidates across the country, realizing their predicament, abandoned the President’s rhetoric and devolved into a baser, uglier set of attacksÂ on Democratic candidates:
The result has been a carnival of ugly, especially on the GOP side, where operatives are trying to counter what polls show is a hostile political environment by casting opponents as fatally flawed characters. The National Republican Campaign Committee is spending more than 90 percent of its advertising budget on negative ads, according to GOP operatives, and the rest of the party seems to be following suit.
A recent Slate article, “Poisoned Politics,” describes the general trend of these Republican attacks:
Buggery is probably the top theme. In California, Republican incumbent John Doolittle has similarly accused his challenger, the unfortunately named Charlie Brown, of being pro-NAMBLA because he’s an ACLU member. Kenneth Blackwell, the Republican candidate for governor in Ohio, charges that his opponent opposed a resolution condemning sex between adults and children. Sonny Perdue, the Republican governor of Georgia, accuses his opponent of putting “the interests of the radical homosexual lobby ahead of our Boy Scouts.”
The other big attack topics this cycle are Democrats and nonpedophilic sex, Democrats and drugs, Democrats and Osama, flag-burning, and illegal immigrants. In a New York congressional race, the National Republican Campaign Committee tried to run an adÂ accusing Democratic candidate Michael Arcuri of spending taxpayer money to call a sex hot line. The call was a wrong number that cost $1.25. When television stations refused to run it, the NRCC went with a more conventional charge that Arcuri went easy on a child rapist as a prosecutor. In Missouri, threatened Republican Sen. Jim Talent blames challenger Claire McCaskill for the prevalence of methamphetamineÂ in Kansas City. In Ohio, likely-to-lose Republican Sen. Mike DeWine claims that his Democratic challenger, Sherrod Brown, is a hippie peacenik who doesn’t support the military. In Iowa, Republican congressional candidate Mike Whalen links his Democratic opponentÂ to the Communist Party and the Taliban. And, all across the country, Republicans are accusing Democrats of wanting to pay Social Security benefits to illegal aliens.
One of the more ludicrous attacks was George Allen’s attempt to smear the character of his opponent, Jim Webb, by highlighting “salacious” passages from works of Webb’s fiction. It was a crass attempt to balance allegations made against Allen — that he used racial epithets, that he stuffed a deer’s head into the mailbox of an African-American family, that he threw his brother through a sliding-glass door and dragged his sister up the stairs by her hair, that his staff assaulted a blogger — allegations about Allen’s actual misconduct. In other words, Allen presumed that his actions would be balanced by Webb’s “thought crime,” his imagined world.
Like Allen, Congressional Republicans are focusing on character and morality, creating a lurid fantasy world where the GOP is the defender of everything precious and good, while the Democratic Party is primarily about gay sex, sex with children, and drugs. The result is about what you’d expect: a number of decent people are turned off by the message.
I’m a Christian, a writer, a military parent and a registered Republican.
On all those counts I was disgusted by an email I just received that’s being circulated by campaign supporters of Republican George Allen, who’s trying to retain his Senate seat in Virginia….
…I should be supporting Allen. Instead, I’m leaving the party.
I’ve had it with Republican smears.
The Webb e-mail is the embodiment of the cynical Republican strategists, some of whom must know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Was Agatha Christie a murderer because she wrote about murder?
According to the Allen camp’s logic, God would be a pedophile, too. After all, we Christians believe God inspired the Bible. And God-the-author chose to include the “sleazy” story about Lot offering to send out his young virgin daughters to be raped by the men of Sodom.
The Bible has masturbation scenes, rape, pedophilia and God’s favorite man – King David – warming himself with a young virgin in his old age. He’s the same man God tells us committed murder after he indulged his peeping Tom fantasies.
Lucky for God-the-author that He’s not running against George Allen.
The fanatic few who do buy into this conservative fantasy universe, where opponents on the left are unpatriotic degenerates, react with appropriate vigor to those that question their world view or those that abandon it. Take a right-wing blogger’s reaction to the news of fellow conservative John Cole’s denunciation of Bush and the Republican Party:
Maybe it’s just me, but when I see people like John Cole, Andrew Sullivan, and David Brock basking in praise from the left and criticizing the right for all the same things that their new best buddies do day in and day out, I can’t help but think that they’re, at least to a certain degree, phonies who’re writing things not because they believe them, but because they think it’ll pull in more traffic and money for them. For example, is John Cole’s stance on the war what he believes or what he needs to keep his new friends on the left linking him? It could be one or it could be the other. It’s hard to say with a guy like Cole.
In other words, anyone who leaves their “side” must be doing it for ulterior motives, not because the Republican Party is corrupt and incompetent and has likely bungled Iraq beyond repair.
The danger in this rhetoric is that it leads to extremism. As the fantasy-world is challenged by reality, by a devolving situation in Iraq, by an increasingly despised President, and by the poor forecasts for the upcoming election, the unhinged fringe reacts to the suspect agents of change with vitriol and violence. For example, a post on my own blog decrying the suspension of habeas corpus was met by the following comment :
if you really believe half the sh*t you say here then you should be the moron being tortured for being so **** stupid. When this nation falls ( and it will) people like you will be the reason it fell and also the first ones killed by the new rulers.
Or take the death threat sent by an Ohio retiree to liberal talk-show host, Stephanie Miller:
As with Cindy Sheehan the best thing that could happen to you would be seeing some WONDERFUL activist sticking an AK-47 up your Glory Holes and sending you into eternity…
…I will be mailing copies of your appearance on yesterday’s Hannity & Colmes to some WONDERFUL people….we will be mailing copies of your anti-America rhetoric together with any personal information we can cull off the Net to the following recipients. Receivers will be families and friends of others lost in Iraq but who believe their sons/daughters died nobly, others with a SPECIAL fervor and fire-in-their-belly for this country and who totally and completely despise renegades as yourself and, too, several others whose “credentials” I will keep to myself but assuredly shall we say devoted people to this country’s future. As the phrase goes we must identify this nation’s enemies and though we keep friends close, we MUST keep our enemies closer and you two vile b*tches are just that, Benedict Arnolds to the country who gives you the freedom to embarrass yourselves…
…So, PLEASE, don’t stop, even expand your words of HATE for America and this Presidency because the more you talk the better chance my hopes and prayers are fulfilled. Would love to celebrate and would for days on end as I always would and will when still another America HATER meets his/her maker.
Both threats are laced with the rhetoric implied by the President, Republican politicians, and the right-wing pundits that support their policies. It’s telling that the “crimes” committed against the country comprise mainly the simple act of expressing an opinion of dissent against the President, and usually in favor of American civil liberties or changing a deeply flawed war strategy. That is, exercising our basic rights should be criminal if we don’t agree with the party and leader in power.
Is it any wonder then, that there’s momentum building in favor of the Democratic Party this election? As more and more independents and moderates leave the Republican banner, more and more voters become “unpatriotic” or “un-American,” more and more people become the target of conservative vitriol.
The rhetoric has come home to roost.